The State of Viognier Wine In Texas

Viognier Grapes (photo courtesy Yalumba Winery)

I have maintained several times that we are at an inflexion point in the reputation and prestige of Texas wines. This is not out of boosterism: I have driven out to about 50 Texas wineries in the past year and reported on only five (Duchman, Inwood Estates, Perissos, Sandstone Cellars and The Vineyard at Florence). Those five were the ones that were ‘aspirational,’ in that they both tried to make the best wine they could and showed significant progress. Extrapolating to the 200 wineries in the state, the aspirational category consists of about 20 wineries. Undoubtedly, those wineries are on their strongest ground when they use the grape varieties most suited to the Texas soil and climate. For white wine, there is something of a consensus now that that grape is Viognier.

I had a chance to participate in a multi-state, multi-country Viognier tasting this week at the 2012 Texas Viognier Symposium organized by the Grayson County College Viticulture and Enology Program and held at Brennan Vineyards in Comanche. Winemakers, grape growers, sommeliers, academics and one media peep tasted Viognier wines from France, California, Virginia and Texas and I am pleased to report, by way of an ‘executive summary,’ that Texas Viognier is as good as any in the United States, and better than some Viognier emerging from the Languedoc-Roussillon area of France. These results reinforce an opinion that I have had for a couple of years that major national wine publications like the Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator are guilty of a criminal idleness in not reporting on certain wines from Texas that have passed the threshold of replicable quality. This is particularly unjustifiable now that these small-production wines ship directly to more and more states each year.

The day started with a summary of Viognier Around The World by James Tidwell, MS, Beverage Director at The Four Seasons Resort and Club in Irving. His 90-minute presentation brought up some surprising facts. For example, Viognier may have arrived in France (via the Romans) from Dalmatia around 280AD; DNA analysis shows it to be closely related to the Nebbiolo grape grown in Piedmont, Italy; Viognier was so out-of-fashion forty years ago that in 1971 there were only 34 acres being grown in the whole world (all in the northern Rhône valley in France); Cuttings came to the USA in the early 1980s with Josh Jensen of Calera Wine Company, maybe deserving the lion’s share of the praise in sustaining U.S. vineyards of the grape.

Also significant, said Tidwell, is the flavor spectrum, dependent on how ripe the grapes are harvested. Just ripe and grapefruit flavors predominate. Slightly riper, and flavors of stone fruit (peach, apricot) dominate. Riper still, and it is tropical fruit (mango, persimmon); even riper, and nutty flavors of almond appear.

Tidwell then led a tasting of French Viognier. The first wine, a 2007 Condrieu from Pierre Gaillard, had heavily oxidized, making for a potion that only a wine geek could love. It exhibited the substantial body, peach flavors and aromas and subtle complexity of Condrieu. It would have been fascinating to compare with one of its younger brethren. The second wine, a 2010 Vin de Pays de Mediterranean by Pesquie was a simple, build-to-a-price, unoaked Viognier from a 4 hectare vineyard in Ventoux, in the southern Rhône.

The symposium’s attention then moved to Virginia with a presentation and tasting led by John Delmare of Rappahannoch Cellars, one of the most celebrated producers in the state. The accompanying tasting consisted of their 2010 and 2011 Viogniers. The 2010 showed typical Viognier peachy flavors and a finish of ripe apples. The 2011 was quite different, with wine gums in the nose and green apples in taste. I was struck by how precisely made these wines were. The fruit-acid balance was spot on.

Next, our attention turned to Texas and a discussion of the issues involved with vineyard site selection and preparation. The tasting brought wines from three of the several wineries in attendance. All of these wineries represent the forefront of Viognier production in the state.

2010 Lone Oak Winery, Texas

A double-gold medal winner at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition. Straw color, peachy flavors and fruit sweetness in the mouth.

2010 Brennan Vineyards, Texas

Tropical fruit in the mouth. A hint of bitterness at the back of the mouth during the finish. This is not a flaw, and is a common phenomenon with Viognier (and Chardonnay). Maybe ‘grip’ would be a better description.

2011 Brennan Vineyards, Texas

Peach nose and flavors.

2010 Alamosa Wine Cellars, Texas Hill Country, Tio Pancho Ranch

Straw color. Pronounced and intense fruit. Sweetness from the ripeness of the fruit.

2010 McPherson Cellars, Texas.

Grapefruit notes in the nose. Peach flavors.

McPherson Cellars also provided their 2010 ‘Les Copains,’ a Rhône blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. This reminded me that one of Viognier’s most significant roles is enhancing other grapes by providing floral notes to the bouquet and fruit to the taste.

The final area tasted was California, with wines from Lions Peak Vineyards in the Central Coast. This winery has something of a Rhône grape focus as they make Roussanne and Marsanne, as well as Viognier. They showed blends of these to great effect.

One of the things that struck me was that the difference between wines from a given area was as great as the difference between areas. I had expected, for example, the Texas wines to be fruitier than those from Virginia but that (at least in this limited sample) wasn’t the case.

What I did find was a high quality level across all the domestic wines. These Texas producers were, of course, a self-selected group of the best and I think, going back to my first paragraph, what has really changed in Texas winemaking is that the amount of viticultural and vinicultural knowhow has increased to the point that the state should be included in tastings of domestic Viogniers. We deserve a place at the judges table, and that will lead to more consumers’ tables.

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